During discussion of great American storytellers, songwriters are too often overlooked. A story can be just as poignant and well told in a song as it can be in a novel or a film. While names like Dylan, Simon, Waits, Newman and Springsteen are mentioned, if rarely, in the conversation about America’s greatest living storytellers, Steve Earle deserves to be among them.
Earle first burst onto the scene in 1986 as an unlikely country music star with his classic debut, Guitar Town. His ability to tell character-rich stories was a stark departure from the cookie-cutter country lyrics of the day, and Earle was heralded as a new and important voice in the genre.
What wasn’t as well-known at the time was that Earle had long been practicing the craft of songwriting and storytelling, having learned firsthand from the likes of the legendary Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Already in his 30s by the time Guitar Town was released, Earle followed it up with three more solid records that saw the often outspoken Virginia-born, Texas-raised, Tennessee-living singer-songwriter leaning further away from country and more into rock territory. His signature anthem, “Copperhead Road,” which told the tale of a Vietnam veteran who returned home to grow marijuana (much like his family had done a generation earlier with moonshine), was a classic example of Earle’s ability to let a listener see another side of a misunderstood character.
Despite commercial success, however, Earle’s personal life was spiraling out of control with a severe substance abuse problem that not only derailed his career, but also sent him to prison on drug related charges in 1994. For a time, it truly looked as though Earle was destined to be one of the music world’s great “what ifs” — a tragic figure right out of one of his own heart-wrenching ballads.
Earle defied the odds, however, and emerged from prison clean and sober, not to mention a man on a mission to create as much music, and tell as many stories, as humanly possible.
Subsequently, Earle spent the last two decades on one of music’s great runs. Every two years like clockwork Earle has released a critically acclaimed record — several of which have earned Grammy awards — and has fostered a remarkably passionate fan base without the help of the mainstream media.
His powers as a writer and storyteller seem to grow with every release and he’s almost become his own genre, record to record venturing from bluegrass to world music and everything in between.
He’s written powerful and damning protest songs, gorgeous and haunting ballads, anthemic and inspiring rockers and so much more. And they’ve all featured characters and stories that define the good, bad and ugly of the American experience.
Earle has also embraced activism, being an advocate for the anti-death penalty movement as well as the anti-war movement. His storytelling hasn’t been confined solely to song, as he was a recurring character on one of America’s greatest television shows The Wire, as well as HBO’s post-Katrina, New Orleans-based drama Treme. Earle also authored the excellent Doghouse Roses, a collection of short stories, and the novel I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.
Now 60 years old and not seeming to lose a step in the studio or on the stage, he’s out touring in support of yet another stellar record, the bluesy Terraplane. With it, Earle, who now calls New York his home, is making his first appearance in Ventura County in more than 20 years, and it’s an eagerly anticipated return, especially for those who usually have to trek to Los Angeles to see their hero live.
Steve Earle once famously stated that “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
Let’s just hope Bob has a sturdy coffee table, because the same could and should be said about Earle himself, one of America’s greatest living storytellers.
Steve Earle will perform on Wednesday, June 17 at The Canyon, in Agoura Hills. For tickets and more information, visit www.canyonclub.net.